Doctor Strange, explained

By the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak!

Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange is one of the more unusual denizens of the Marvel Comics Universe. He hasn’t aged since he was in his late thirties, his three-story townhouse is several times larger on the inside and can access other worlds and he carries the title of Sorcerer Supreme. After being named-dropped in the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier in 2014, Doctor Strange makes his solo movie debut this November, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game). If you’re curious about his comic book origins and evolution, have no fear. We’ve got you covered!

Doctor Strange

Master of black magic!

Doctor Strange is the creation of artist Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man with Stan Lee. According to Lee, Ditko brought him the first Doctor Strange story already drawn, about a mysterious master of black magic who acted as help and consultant to people who encountered supernatural forces. Doctor Strange first appeared in Marvel’s anthology series Strange Tales #110 and became a regular feature. Nothing of his past is revealed in the debut story, only that he’s a master of "black magic," is armed with magical objects, and lives in his Sanctum Sanctorum, a Greenwich Village townhouse with a big funky window.

But while the hero himself seemed a little generic at first, his world definitely wasn’t. Steve Ditko’s woodcut-esque illustrations gave the characters and settings a sense of weight, grit and age, a stark contrast to the futuristic designs of Jack Kirby’s work in other Marvel Comics. The early stories had Ditko experimenting with how to display Doctor Strange’s odd, mystical abilities. Starting with Strange Tales #116, Ditko turned up the volume and provided dream-like, kaleidoscopic landscapes whenever the sorcerer hero journeyed to unearthly realms such as "the Dream Dimension" and "the Dark Dimension." The comic became famous for these unique environs, and many artists who followed Ditko on Doctor Strange have done their best to follow Ditko’s style and often been criticized when they haven’t. These journeys into other dimensions, along with the bizarre beings that Doctor Strange encountered, gave the series a surrealist quality that spoke to ‘60s counterculture and seemed to predict the interest in mysticism and other planes of reality that swept through America’s youth soon afterward. It’s unlikely that Doctor Strange would have developed the fan following it did without Ditko’s unique artistic direction for the stories.

Doctor Strange had a surrealist quality that spoke to ‘60s counter-culture

Strange Tales #116 also featured Stan Lee introducing odd mystical names and incantations into Doctor Strange’s dialogue. In that issue, he references "the book of the Vishanti," "the dread Dormammu," "the all-seeing Agamotto," and "the hosts of Hoggoth." This, along with later mentioned things such as "the wand of Watoomb" and "the crimson bands of Cyttorak," were just alliterative nonsense that Lee made up on the fly, but they all took on greater meaning as Doctor Strange’s world evolved.

Readers learned that the Vishanti was a trio of cosmic beings (Agamotto, Hoggoth and Oshtur) who empowered many magic-users, particularly whomever held the title of "Sorcerer Supreme." The dread Dormammu of the Dark Dimension was later introduced as a major villain, becoming one of Doctor Strange’s arch-enemies. And the crimson bands of Cyttorak are what give the X-Men villain Juggernaut his incredible power. The more you know!

Doctor Strange

But what about the hero himself? Who is he and how did he acquire his magic? In his first few stories, Strange is a dark and mysterious figure of ambiguous nationality, giving no hint about his origins, though we do see him consult with a teacher (later named the Ancient One) who lives in a temple in the mountains of Asia. Strange Tales #111 then narrowed things down, saying that the Ancient One lived in Tibet. But then Strange Tales #115 revised this, saying his temple was located in India. Then Strange Tales #117 again referred to Tibet, and this remained the accepted location from that point forward (though some comics only say that the temple is in the Himalayas). To this day, contradictions and revisions remain common parts of Doctor Strange’s world.

Unwilling to accept that his life must change, Stephen becomes obsessed with healing himself

After three stories, Doctor Strange’s origin is revealed in Strange Tales #115. Unlike many previously existing comic book heroes and villains such as Doctor Fate and Doctor Doom, it turns out that this guy is literally and authentically a doctor. Stephen Strange, we learn, is originally a brilliant surgeon who becomes focused on money and reputation rather than his patients. But one night he crashes his car, resulting in damage to the nerves in his hands and ending his surgical career. Unwilling to accept that his life must change, Stephen becomes obsessed with healing himself. After finding no solution in science, he travels the world and investigates rumors of magic that might heal him. His journey brings him to the temple of the Ancient One, who tells him that his soul should be healed rather than his hands, and offers to be the surgeon’s new teacher. Stephen thinks this is a terrible answer, but spends the night in the temple because hey, it’s late and the journey back is long.

That night, Strange learns that the Ancient One’s apprentice, Baron Karl Mordo, is plotting his master’s assassination. Mordo realizes he’s been discovered and casts a spell that prevents Stephen from revealing this discovery. In the morning, all Strange has to do is leave and he won’t have to worry about weird people in mountains doing magic ever again. But instead, he asks the Ancient One to teach him magic, thinking he might be able to learn how to protect this old man and fight Mordo himself. The Ancient One then reveals that he knows all about Mordo’s plans, because he’s a boss, and he accepts Strange as a pupil, impressed by his altruism. Years of study then lead to Stephen becoming a master of the mystic arts.

Doctor Strange

So that’s the story behind Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange. Later comics add more details, such as that he went into pre-med studies directly out of high school and then to Columbia University. Readers learn that he grew up in New York but was born in Philadelphia while his parents were on vacation. We also saw that following his younger sister Donna’s death by drowning when he was nineteen, Stephen grew a serious fear and discomfort around death, which only increased after the deaths of his parents (both from illness), and when his brother Victor died from being struck by a car just moments after the two of them had a heated argument (more on that dude later).

In 1996, writer J.M DeMatteis revealed that Baron Mordo, foreseeing that they would be enemies, sent demonic forces to torment Stephen throughout his life, and was responsible for causing the car crash (though other accounts put the blame elsewhere, including that Stephen might’ve been drinking). Writer Kevin Smith proposed that unlike other Marvel characters whose stories exist on a sliding timeline (constantly shifting into the modern day so the heroes stay young), Strange’s 1960s stories still literally took place in the 1960s and that folks such as Daredevil grew up on stories about him. The 2005 Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Marvel Knights agrees with this, saying Stephen Strange was born in 1930, but several stories before and after still contradict this.

Doctor Strange

Anyway, following his origin flashback issue, Doctor Strange (now calling himself "master of the mystic arts" rather than "master of black magic") continues to rock out against strange menaces that threaten the safety of Earth, under the direction of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. He falls in love with Clea of the Dark Dimension and eventually gains a servant named Wong, later said to be the son of the Ancient One’s servant. In these Lee/Ditko stories, Doctor Strange not only uses magic to solve his problems, but often creative trickery and even martial arts skills. He also starts interacting more with the rest of the Marvel Universe, helping Thor against Loki and forming a friendship with Lee/Ditko creation Spider-Man. Doctor Strange’s personality grows into a contemplative, compassionate man with an often serious nature who still has a dry sense of humor, an appreciation for art and poetry, and who maintains an interest in medicine, reading up on the latest research when he’s not too busy studying ancient secrets of mysticism.

Stephen has a dark cloak and a magical amulet during his earliest adventures. In Strange Tales #127 (1964), he upgraded his look by earning ownership of his now famous red Cloak of Levitation and the powerful, all-seeing Eye of Agamotto (also known as the Eye of Truth). These items are now practically synonymous with the name Doctor Strange and this second style is considered his classic look.

After Ditko, Roy Thomas became one of Doctor Strange’s longest running writers

Steve Ditko left Doctor Strange’s stories behind him after Strange Tales #146, following an epic tale where the demonic Dormammu attempts to defeat Eternity, the living embodiment of reality. Strange defeats this scheme and saves not only his love Clea but also his enemy Baron Mordo. Denny O’Neil took over as writer starting with the next issue, followed by Roy Thomas with issue #150. Roy Thomas became one of Doctor Strange’s longest running writers, occasionally returning to the character in later years as well. He established many now familiar things in Strange’s world, including that the exact address of Stephen’s Sanctum Sanctorum is 117A Bleecker Street, referencing an apartment Thomas once shared with Gary Friedrich, co-creator of Ghost Rider.

Doctor Strange’s adventures continued and earned enough of a following that starting with issue #169, Strange Tales changed its title to Doctor Strange and now only featured him instead of multiple stories starring different characters.

From superhero to sorcerer supreme

Doctor Strange

In the late 1960s, Stephen’s comic wasn’t doing so well and Marvel wondered if the audience would prefer him to be a more traditional superhero, complete with a mask and secret identity. In Doctor Strange #177 (1969), by writer Roy Thomas and artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, the sorcerer assumes a new masked appearance in order to bypass an enemy’s spell. Then in Doctor Strange #182, a convoluted series of events leads to him gaining the new secret identity of "Dr. Stephen Sanders" to use when he’s not fighting magic stuff. This new superhero style set-up didn’t save the book, however, and it ended with the very next issue. The now masked Doctor Strange then appears in Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126, and in the latter adventure he decides to retire, forsaking his magical powers to become medical consultant Stephen Sanders.

Doctor Strange

This retirement doesn’t last long, though. In Marvel Feature #1 just months later, Stephen reassumes his mystical powers after having to face Baron Mordo again, who is impersonating him as the masked Doctor Strange. The Ancient One helps Stephen get his magic back immediately, undoing the fake Stephen Sanders identity in the process. In the same issue, Doctor Strange becomes a founding member of Marvel’s original Defenders team, alongside the Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner (you’ll see a very different Defenders team on Netflix next year).

In 1973, in Marvel Premiere #10, the Ancient One finally dies when he asks Doctor Strange to end his life before a great evil can use his body to threaten Earth. As a result, Stephen Strange assumes his master’s mantle as Sorcerer Supreme. This means he’s recognized as the most formidable magic user on the planet, and is entrusted with the protection of Earth’s dimension (though the Vishanti later make him prove his worthiness of this title in the 1989 graphic novel Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment). The next year, he got his own solo series again, and in Doctor Strange vol. 2 #4, he gains the gift of an "ageless" life, ensuring that he’ll never get older (though his hair and beard still grow, which seems weird to me, but that’s magic).

Despite some really creative stories, the sales on Doctor Strange volume 2 later fell and the series ended in 1987 with issue #81. Stephen Strange then starred in a new Strange Tales anthology series for a while. Under writer Peter B. Gillis, he winds up destroying many of his magic talismans in order to prevent an evil force from usurping them. He then leaves New York to act more clandestinely as Dr. Stephen Sanders again, allowing the world (including Wong) to think that he’s dead and altering their minds so they won’t recognize him. After several adventures, he returns to his true name and home, revealing himself to Wong and his friends. Are all wizards so fickle and casual about altering their friends’ memories and perceptions?

Entering the 1990s

Doctor Strange

In any event, Stephen gets a new solo title in 1988: Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme. Stephen is now part of an ensemble cast that includes Wong, Wong’s love Imei, Sara Wolfe (great-granddaughter of a Cheyenne shaman), and the mystic woman called Topaz. Starting with issue #5, he gains an apprentice, the other-dimensional minotaur named Rintrah.

Comics, people. Anything can happen

The new series started a bit slow, then got seriously weird as it entered the 1990s, with stories relying on soap opera style twists. For instance, just after dealing with an ex publishing a tell-all book about him, Stephen reveals to his friends that he has a secret dead brother named Victor who died from being hit by car. As if it’s not odd enough this guy was never mentioned before, Stephen adds that he had the body frozen in hopes that he could restore Victor to life one day (wow, what the hell, Stephen) but then, after becoming a master of mystic arts, he unknowingly and accidentally resurrected the guy as a vampire (no, seriously - what the hell, Stephen). Not long after that, Strange meets an evil version of himself from Counter-Earth, who call himself Necromancer and dresses in the short-lived masked costume that Stephen briefly used. And then of course, Lilith, queen of demons, showed up, prompting Doctor Strange to push several mystically inclined heroes and warriors into action (Blade, Ghost Rider, others) in the crossover event Rise of the Midnight Sons. Comics, people. Anything can happen.

After these odd stories, it seems like Marvel just didn’t know what to do with Doctor Strange for the next few years. He loses the title of Sorcerer Supreme and, now seriously de-powered, relies on different teams of heroes and fighters to handle situations for him, as seen in the pages of Secret Defenders. He regains the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, then loses it again and magically creates two constructs to act in his stead while he recovers: the human construct Vincent Stevens, who becomes a wealthy and corrupt businessman; and the magical, aggressive monster simply called Strange. Weird, right?

Doctor Strange

Stephen regains his Sorcerer Supreme mantle, now relying on Earth elemental magic and gaining a very hippie, clean-shaven, pajama-wearing look. This new take on Stephen is tossed out the window by new writer Warren Ellis with issue #80 in 1995. Ellis shifts Doctor Strange’s power source to "catastrophe magic" (which later writer Todd Dezago also called "chaos magic"), relying on the movement and positions of stars and other celestial bodies. Sadly, after a very promising start, Warren Ellis left just a few issues later, and Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme ended with issue #90 in 1996.

Wong’s relationship with Stephen also changed during this time. In the midst of a serious battle, Doctor Strange makes a pragmatic decision to save the maximum number of people possible, but this means being unable to prevent the death of Imei. Heartbroken, Wong leaves Strange’s side for a while. When they reunite, it’s an uneasy alliance, but they eventually mend fences and are now friends and colleagues rather than master and servant.

For the next several years, Doctor Strange bounces around as a guest star in other books, occasionally getting his own special or miniseries. During crossover events, he is a major player or a good exposition deliverer. By 1998, he’s back in his traditional outfit, then sports a darker version of it in the 1999 miniseries Doctor Strange: Flight of Bones. That same miniseries also upgrades Stephen’s mustache to a van dyke beard!

Magic in the 21st century

Doctor Strange

In the 21st century, Doctor Strange has once again mainly been a character bouncing between other people’s books. In the 2002 miniseries The Order, he and the other original Defenders (and later member Silver Surfer) attempt to become Earth’s benevolent dictators before being brought back to their senses. In the pages of New Avengers and Illuminati, writer Brian Michael Bendis retroactively revealed that for years now, Stephen Strange has been meeting secretly with Mr. Fantastic, Professor Xavier, Black Bolt, Iron Man and Namor the Sub-Mariner, for the purpose of making sure the superhuman community, and society, is sometimes nudged in the right direction. This group winds up dispersing after several of its members decide to exile the Hulk from Earth, a move that leads to the crossover World War Hulk. Along with his failure to prevent reality from being re-written in House of M, and his decision not to interfere with the crossover Civil War, it almost seemed like Stephen Strange was now just an ineffective shadow of the hero he’d once been.

as the most formidable magic user on the planet, Doctor Strange is entrusted with the protection of Earth

On the flipside, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin collaborated on an excellent miniseries in 2007 called Doctor Strange: The Oath. This story, dealing with Stephen discovering a possible cure for cancer, quickly became regarded as a classic and is a great introduction to the hero for new fans. Following that miniseries, Stephen loses the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme yet again, and he thinks he doesn’t deserve it. In New Avengers vol. 1 #54 (2009) the title passes to Jericho Drumm, the supernatural hero Brother Voodoo, who is renamed Doctor Voodoo. In New Avengers vol. 2 #34 (2012), the spirit of the Ancient One returns the Sorcerer Supreme mantle to Stephen, along with the Cloak of Levitation and Eye of Agamotto. Doctor Strange goes on to aid Earth’s heroes against parallel Earth incursions and then plays a pivotal role in the 2015 Secret Wars crossover.

In 2016, Stephen now stars in a new Doctor Strange series under writer Jason Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo. This series is geared for fans new and old, following Stephen, Wong and the Sanctum Sanctorum’s new librarian Zelma Stanton as they deal with new threats, including science-worshippers determined to destroy all magic, good and bad. It’s a highly entertaining series and you should check it out to whet your appetite before Doctor Strange hits theaters this November!

Alan Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is a pop culture historian, actor and NYT Best Selling author of Doctor Who: A History. He is the creator and host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks. He was once Doctor Strange for Halloween as a child but none of his spells worked.